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No lifeguards for Kua Bay

May 19, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — A local lawmaker and fire chief said they will continue to advocate for state funds to put lifeguards at Kua Bay.

A bill that would have done just that died in a Senate committee this past session — a few steps short of final approval in the multi-layered legislative process. That means funding won’t be available for four lifeguards at the popular North Kona beach, where there have been three fatal drownings, three near drownings and several other serious injuries between 2008 and mid-December.

But despite Rep. Cindy Evans’ third effort to fund lifeguards at the northern end of Kekaha Kai State Park, this most recent effort failed to get a hearing in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means even after approval from the House of Representatives.

Had Ways and Means approved it, the final step would have followed — a vote by the full Senate.

“I’m not going to give up on bringing attention to the issue,” Evans said. “Our state parks are challenged right now because more and more people are using our state parks and more and more people are using our natural resources in Hawaii.”

Evans noted that there are competing interests for state funds, with requests for money to support the state’s natural resources, such as managing trails, beaches and combating invasive species.

“So there’s a lot of competing interests,” Evans said. “So, you know, we can’t do all things and we just didn’t make the cut.”

Issues like invasive species took lots of energy and focus — “which was great,” the representative said — as did homelessness and housing, as well as collective bargaining.

“And so with the negotiations that the governor did, all the bargaining units got salary increases and the teachers got a nice salary increase,” Evans said, “which I think was needed also, but there’s only so much money in the budget, and so this just didn’t rise high enough on the priority list.”

After the state’s House of Representatives passed the proposal, it received a referral to the Committee on Ways and Means in March, where it stayed. The session adjourned May 4.

Still, Evans said she felt this year got more people educated about the need for lifeguards at Kua Bay and more people are speaking out in support of the proposal.

“So I stay hopeful,” she said, “and I think we just need to keep our message that it’s something we need to take care of, because this state park is highly used and … this is one of those beaches where I’ve heard too many stories, too many people saying this is a beach that can be very dangerous for people that don’t know how to recreate in the ocean.”

Gerald Kosaki, Hawaii Fire Department special operations battalion chief, said he was disappointed with the bill’s fate.

“It’s very important, I think, because of the improvements that were made to the area,” he said. “It’s a beautiful beach. There’s parking easily accessible and a lot of people go there.”

But, he said, that beauty isn’t without danger, particularly when waves break onto a shallow sand bar or shelf, putting swimmers at risk of being tossed against the land or swept out by a riptide or current.

And the presence of lifeguards can drastically affect an endangered swimmer’s chances at survival.

Kosaki recalled two incidents that occurred one day earlier this year within a span of a half-hour: one at Kua Bay and another up the coast at Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area.

“Both similar incidents with a patron in his late 50s, early 60s,” Kosaki said. “Both were found face down in the water.”

The person at Kua Bay, Kosaki said, was pulled in by bystanders. Without an Automated External Defibrillator — which is standard equipment for lifeguards — they performed CPR until medics arrived 10-15 minutes later.

At Hapuna Beach, meanwhile, the person found in the water was pulled in by lifeguards, who were able to not only perform CPR but make use of life-saving equipment on hand.

“The person at Kua Bay was eventually transported by our medical unit — our ambulance — to Kona (Community) Hospital and did not survive,” Kosaki said. “Whereas the person at Hapuna that was treated by our lifeguards was transported by our ambulance there from South Kohala to North Hawaii (Community) Hospital and did survive.”

“I’m not saying that, you know, if there was a lifeguard at Kua Bay, he would have survived,” Kosaki added. “But I think the chances that they would survive with somebody medically trained and with the proper medical equipment there would increase— greatly increase the chance of survival.”

In fact, the closest stations to Kua Bay are Kailua Fire Station or Makalei Fire Station, both of which are approximately 15 minutes away.

“And, as you know, the brain can survive or cells can survive without oxygen only 4-6 minutes before cells start to die,” Kosaki said. “So if nobody’s there and somebody stopped breathing, then chances of that person being revived or surviving is much lower.”

Moving forward, he said, he’s hopeful that either this bill or a similar bill is pushed forward in the next legislative session.

“All of our lifeguards on the west side are all in favor and all in support of lifeguard services there,” he said. “They know how dangerous that area is or can be.”

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